What are our fisheries for?

Guest Contribution by Jordan Nikoloyuk

Since Ecology Action Centre published ‘Valuing our Fisheries: Breaking Nova Scotia’s Commodity Curse’, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about our key findings.

Freeport Wharf, Bay of Fundy

Freeport, Nova Scotia. Photo by Becky Cliche.

The report shows that if we want fisheries that provide economically viable livelihoods in coastal communities, we have to start thinking about more than just exporting cheap protein. The global ‘race to the bottom’ of commodity food prices isn’t helping anyone. Exporting fish will always be part of the picture, but Atlantic Canada is missing out on opportunities to increase value by tapping into local and regional markets hungry for sustainable, local seafood.

We’ve had a lot of interest in the report from media, politicians, government employees, and – maybe most exciting of all – fishermen and the seafood industry. One question that we keep getting, though, is a big one: Why try to fight trade globalization? Aren’t lower prices better for everyone?

To understand why lower prices aren’t always such a good thing, we need to ask what our fisheries are for and what we want to get from them. I think our fisheries should be managed to bring the maximum benefits to people that live in coastal communities, and that means that we need policies that support that connection.

Employment in the fishery

Wharf buoys, Tiverton, Nova Scotia.

Tiverton, Nova Scotia. Photo by Becky Cliche.

One of the findings that people seem really interested in is our comparison of employment figures with different gear types. We looked at landing and dockside monitoring reports and found that haddock harvested by bottom longline fishermen generated more than three times as much employment than when harvested by trawlers.  For us, that’s an argument in favour of using bottom longlines, but to some people, it actually seemed like a reason to invest more in trawlers!

Other than environmental devastation, there are a few reasons not to get too enthused about this more ‘efficient’ method of fishing. Larger trawler boats cost more to build and have higher costs, meaning that revenue doesn’t translate into take-home pay. They can also produce a lower quality product.

More importantly, remember that whenever we talk about fisheries we’re talking about a public resource. The question shouldn’t be, “how can we catch fish the cheapest?” Rather, it should be, “what do we want from our fisheries?” I want our fisheries to provide meaningful livelihoods for people living in coastal communities. Other people might want our fisheries to generate shareholder profits for seafood companies; if that’s the goal, then ‘efficient’ boats that keep labour costs low and ignore the long-term ecological health of the fishery are probably the way to go.

But what are our fisheries for?

Employment in seafood processing

As my colleague Dave Adler always puts it: “The best seafood in our province drives straight from the wharf to the airport without stopping.” When you compare Nova Scotia with other coastal parts of the world, it’s pretty hard to get fresh, local seafood.

At a longline groundfish plant, Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia

Longline groundfish plant, Nova Scotia

We surveyed some processors around the province about the challenges of processing more local fish and were kind of surprised by the results. We heard that there weren’t enough fish but also the exact opposite – that there was too much fish! You see, when people say that Nova Scotia’s processing sector “isn’t competitive” what they often mean is that Nova Scotians can’t or won’t process enormous volumes of fish for incredibly low wages. Or, they mean that we don’t have enough machinery in our plants and try to do too much work by hand.

What this means is that when it comes to the large volumes that trawlers can land, it actually makes more ‘economic’ sense to ship whole fish around the world to China for processing and then back to the province as fillets or fish sticks. We have fewer fishermen, our processing plants close down, and we lose any chance to brand Nova Scotian seafood.

This story isn’t all that unique in today’s globalized world, but it is easy to forget that the ‘savings’ in processing are a cost to the province. It’s the same question as before – what do we want to use our fisheries for?

How much can we really change?

One reporter asked me, “So what’s your answer – just get people to pay more?”, and yes, that’s obviously a part of it. There are markets that want to hear the stories of community-based fishermen that produce high-quality, sustainable seafood, and are willing to pay fair prices to support their local food producers.

Weighing groundfish shares, Off the Hook Community Supported Fishery

Weighing groundfish shares, Off the Hook Community Supported Fishery

We’re working right now on figuring out exactly what these markets need and how we can get our sustainable seafood to them. There’s other work to do, and we’ll always be exporting seafood, but the economy is definitely changing. Now that our currency exchange rates don’t give us a natural price advantage over the rest of the world, it’s pretty clear that our industry has to approach the marketplace in a new way – and telling meaningful stories about our small-scale fisheries is a start.

How much of a difference will it make if we start to value our small-scale fisheries? I don’t know for sure. But I do know that I’m not ready to give up on Atlantic Canada’s rural, coastal communities or the sustainable fishery livelihoods that they depend on. We’re not working to rebuild fish stocks so that we can forget about the jobs that they provide. If we want our fisheries to benefit coastal communities, we have to remind ourselves that they’re a public resource and make the effort to manage them properly.

Jordan Nikoloyuk is the Sustainable Fisheries Coordinator at Ecology Action Centre and SmallScales’ most frequent contributor.


8 thoughts on “What are our fisheries for?

  1. Years ago, in the mid 1970’s, the failed fisheries here in New England were highjacked from future fishermen by the “Limited Entry” program. This system is anti-public trust because it is inherently a class system. It’s based on patronage to a certain few. These are extreme and exclusionary fishing rights based programs, and should not be seen as fishery production systems. They are anti-habitat, socially corrosive, and generally public resource wealth wasters. Our so called fishery systems, for much of the world now, benefit only a class of fishing rights owners. This is where we are at. Canadian and American youth are boxed out of fishing as a reasonable career. By the time a young fisherman pays for his or her fishing rights, under this opressive system, they are ready to check into a home for the elderly. Fishing rights, are the core of the fishery, and the core is rotten.

    I agree with all the sentiments about what fisheries SHOULD be for, and what fisheries should NOT be for. The fact is that with such an entrenced patronage system, we local small boat fishermen are marginalized non-entities. Only the big destructive method boats are heard by the government. What a shame. Our fisheries are not ours. The sad reality is this: Fishing permits are “deeds to fish”. The permits are held as a property right very similar to a real estate deed. Years ago the public made a grave mistake, allowing such a system. Imagine fishing being essentially owned by a certain few! We can’t be sentimental and just say ignorantly that fisheries are a public resource. Fisheries should be a public trust resource, yes.

    I have the answers to these problems: public trust based systems, for us all. Poundage quota is the way to go, because it represents a cash flow for the public reinvestment into habitat, stocks, infrastructure and fishermen. Poundage quota is short term, and so not as socially corrosive. The mechanism is important because it allows the public to penalize fishing gear that hurts the public trust, or asset base. It allows for green fishing, such as bottom longlining, to be advantaged. It should be! It’s good green fishing, and very good for the public! What are we thinking using these old failed systems?

    There are answers. We don’t have to live this way. What are fisheries for?, we ask, and we the public must have the answers. I can present this major world class fishery system. I also have greener fishing gear designs which I’ve used for years, and my industrial scale aquaculture system models, floating marine labs, and more …. But it’s not all about what “fishermen” want. I want rational discussion based on the public interests. It will work. Read the report. It’s the best real system on the table. Market Quota System: The Ultimate in Public Resource Management. (IIFET 2000) http://www.environmentalfisherman.com

    • Thanks for the comments, Steven! I haven’t heard about a ‘Market Quota Systems’ approach before but hope to find time to look at your paper soon.

      One of the big challenges in Atlantic Canada right now around limited entry is that fishing licenses have market value and can be sold / transferred. Most of the fishermen looking to retire are relying on being able to sell their licenses and have managed their finances and retirement plans accordingly. Unfortunately this means that a new generation of fishermen are going to be taking on a debt load that just might not make sense in the small-scale fishery business plans.

      At the same time, we have the concentrated corporate fishing fleets looking to consolidate more and more, and they’re essentially bidding up the price and encouraging this enormous barrier to new entrants. And you’re right, the government hears from large and destructive fishing fleets that are well-organized enough to hire lobbyists to fight against support for smaller fleets, or marine protected areas, or ensuring that fisheries benefit coastal communities.

      The challenge, of course, is getting to where we want from where we are now. Like it or not there’s a generation of fishermen with money and time and retirement plans invested into a system that forgot to effectively plan for the future. We’re doing some work in social finance fields that I think might make a big difference, but it’s still in early stages – stay tuned for another blog post! I’ll definitely take a look at the ‘Market Quota System’ in the meantime.

  2. Jordan: Thanks for the informative and thoughtful post. Many of the issues you touch on are common to the U.S. as well. Here’s one: Up and down the West Coast, it ranges from difficult to impossible for average consumers to purchase truly fresh fish. There a several reasons for this: chain supermarkets have distribution systems that exclude local resources; fresh, local fish costs as much as three or four times fish imported from Chile, China and elsewhere; and even where local processing exists, distribution systems tend to still be highly inefficient – resulting in “fresh” fish hitting markets and restaurants already three-days old.
    But here’s another problem, and I’m interested to know if it’s the same in Nova Scotia: In the U.S., it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that fishermen, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants can pretty much call any fish by any name they want and get away with it. Even though there IS a standardized nomenclature for virtually every fish that swims (thanks to the American Fisheries Society), Nothing compels those who make their money by selling fish to adhere to this nomenclature. Thus greenling are passed off as “trout,” sea bass can be just about anything a marketer wants to call a sea bass, and snapper… well, the odds are that when you purchase “snapper” in the U.S., it is anything but snapper. It might even by $4/pound talapia from China.
    Until we settle on standardized names (and we Will need the government to get involved in this), I believe the problems you discuss will not be solved. Fresh, local fish is worth every penny. But how can consumers be expected to develop a preference for such fish when marketers are permitted to create a chaotic system of guesswork through incorrect naming? Without consumer confidence and knowledge, there will be little market pressure to supply fresh, local seafood.
    Think of fish as brands. Can you imagine a system where it would be permissible for anything, of any quality, to be labeled Gucci. Or how about this: what if any meat – and any cut of meat – could be labeled Filet Mignon, with the consumer left to sort it out. Chicken, pork, dog, cat, ham, rump roast – anything a restauranteur or retailer wanted to call Filet Mignon could be called Filet Mignon. That’s pretty much the way it is with fish. They’ve even come up with something called “white tuna.” No, it’s not albacore. It’s not even anything in the tuna family. Jack Donachy

    • Hi Jack, you’re right that distribution is probably one of our toughest challenges when it comes to bringing fresh seafood to local markets. I’m optimistic about solving it though; part of the problem is that our industry historically never had to think about this challenge. Over the past decades we could just sell boatloads of product straight to the world market because 1) our exchange rate made it so profitable and competitive and 2) people didn’t realize (or didn’t care about) the environmental consequences of those kinds of volumes. The industry has to change, and I think that value and quality and traceability will be a big part of where we go.

      I also hope that the traceability work helps solve the other problem you mention, which is partly confusing marketing and partly deliberate fraud. The more consumers get interested in knowing the story of who caught their fish, the less people will be able to mislead them about exactly what it is. The same problem is rampant when it comes to describing how a fish was caught as well – sometimes it seems that descriptors like “line-caught”, “day boat” or “hook and line” get slapped on to just about anything.

      I’m also pretty sure that a lot of people use the “diver caught” label on scallops based on how big they are instead of whether or not divers caught them.

      Oceana is running a campaign in the United States to support seafood traceability (http://bit.ly/Xdfmks). In the meantime, people just have to work harder to know their fishermen, to know and trust their fishmongers, and to ask all sorts of questions to show the people who sell fish that their consumers care about these things.

      and stay away from the “white tuna.” It’ll make you sick. Seriously – http://bit.ly/VQkiuD

  3. Wow. Definitely got me thinking. I was born land-locked, but would love to be able to walk to a dock fishmarket and buy me some fresh stuff! Sounds like I might have better luck, being land-locked than many! Eeek!

  4. Good morning Steve,Jordan,Barb&Don and all of you good people at the Ecology Action Center. My name is Fred Horner,some of you there know me,

    Reading your posts takes me back forty five to fifty years ago+,I remember the day when any young man, like myself forty four years ago could buy a license for twenty five cents, an old boat and gear for what ever it is worth and begin a career in the fishing industry,get married,buy an old house and raise a family in the community.
    That is just what I did and proud of it!
    BUT through the years a lot has changed,I have witnessed and experienced ALL of those changes!
    Long story short,from the day when we went out,caught fish and brought them ashore and sold them, to today when a young man entering the fishery has to buy the boat and gear +the fish in the water from a fish lord who was (allocated) or bought the “said”allocation before he can go and catch them.
    But that is the way it is,BECAUSE “no one stepped up to stop it,we all knew at the time that it was not right to give fish away in the water!
    NOBODY,unless he has a haylou over his head has that right!
    The governments and big business manipulated our fish and coastal fishing communities right out from underneath of us in many different ways,ie,use it or lose it program,many a small fisherman lost his license”prividlege to fish, JUST because he could not afford to go fishing for nothing after the draggers raped his inshore bottom!
    I can go on and on,the fact is that THEY big business and government stole our fish and it is time to stand up and say that we want them back.
    YES you are going to have most of the fishlords say that they bought their fish in the water! BUT this is what I say, that who ever sold them to you did not own them and just the same as I sold you a car that did not belong to me,no matter what you paid me for it, WHEN the true owner finds out where it is he has the right to demand his car back and you will have to return it to him and take the beef up with me, or who ever sold you the car!
    We NEED,no DEMAND our fish back so we can neuture our small returning spawning stocks back to healthy stocks and not allow ANYONE to fish them during spawning season.
    We need to recreate history,(dory fishing)2013 style,listen to this.
    My son’s car broke down in Maine,he had it towed to the St. John ferry,I made arrangements to have it towed on in St. John and off in Digby.As I was standing by the car, parked in the bow of the ferry boat waiting for the tow truck looking at the large empty deck and out through the stern doors that were open.
    I said to myself, wholly shit, what a dory vessel this would make,I pictured a marine railway down the middle to launch and haul good size boats, equipped with all of the modern electronics,radar,radio,gps,lifesaving equipment etc etc.
    Unlike the old small dories that was used years ago and lost so many men!
    There is enough room there to for a processing facility,and living quarters on the upper deck for crew.
    The fish can be caught,processed and marketed right on board!

    That ferry boat is going to be replaced soon,does anyone want to discuss this idea?
    It is not rocket science,it worked before it can work again!
    Can we, the people of the fishing communities and government work together?

    Please reply to me@ capt.freddies@hotmail.com
    If you agree or disagree, and think that I am crazy!


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